Run Free: A New Perspective

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By Bahar Sharareh

(Editor’s note: Don’t miss the wonderful photos at the end of this inspiring post!)

At first nothing may strike you about a group of guys observing a few horses roaming in an arena, but here at Bethany’s Gait, located in Orange County,California, this is an activity that’s part of an increasingly popular equine facilitated psychotherapy program that is provided to military personnel and at-risk individuals. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), drug and alcohol addiction, depression, and a myriad of other issues are being addressed via equine facilitated psychotherapy programs.

Although it is a form of therapy that is novel to many ears, equine therapy has been used since the 1990s and has increasingly been proven effective to treat issues that sometimes regular therapy may not resolve. For example, some members of the military may not be completely comfortable revealing their problems to a therapist in an office because they have always been trained to be strong; thus, they will often find equine therapy to be more comforting. 

According to Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) incorporates horses experientially for emotional growth and learning. In Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP), the mental health professional gives the horse enough time and space to bring about a desired change in the client. In EAP, a horse can be an aide or just a spectator.

The EFP program atBethany’s Gait comprises the client doing various activities with horses such as herd observation, grooming, trail riding, various ground work exercises  and “sharing territory” with the horse they choose. The activities are facilitated by a therapy team consisting of a mental health professional and an equine specialist trained in one or more methods of equine facilitated psychotherapy.Bethany’s Gait provides the environment that allows for clients to form strong bonds with horses, which creates positive ripple effects in various areas of the clients’ lives.

MSgt Runyon, a retired Air Force Veteran, was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is a psychiatric condition that is experienced by some individuals after a traumatic event. After the trauma, such individuals will have persistent recollection of the event and either avoid or are numb to the stimuli associated with the event. Some common symptoms include difficulty concentrating, depression, apathy, anger, irritability, nightmares, and reliving the traumatic event.

Similar to several other conditions such as depression and substance abuse, PTSD has shown to occur at a higher rate among those who are serving or have served in the military. This is especially true among personnel whose position has involved a high number of direct encounters with the enemy such as being shot at or killing an enemy combatant. In MSgt Runyon’s 20 years of service, he witnessed numerous traumatic events, horribel acts of war, and certain memories such as his recollection of “the road toBaghdad” in the 1st Gulf War, and the smell and scenes of death continued to haunt him years later. MSgt Runyon was seeing a therapist for some time but because his improvement was at a standstill, the therapist suggested that he tryBethany’s Gait.

Bethany’s Gait, founded in 2006 by Cristi Silverberg-Rose, is a nonprofit ranch and horse rescue that brings the horses and the humans together, helping both to heal. MSgt Runyon agreed to contact the organization.

At Bethany’s Gait, before clients get started, April Dona, the Clinical Director, talks with the clients to determine if the program is right for them. After the initial assessments, clients are paired with the most appropriate therapy team and introduced to each of the horses. Clients are allowed to choose the horse they’d like to work with. The story of each horse and their rescue often triggers an emotional response in the clients, who in turn may feel a connection to the horse and choose it.

Bethany’s Gait currently has 13 horses that it uses in its program. It’s important to note that in recent years the problem of unwanted horses in theUnited Stateshas increased, and a growing number of horses are being neglected, abandoned, and even abused. The reasons can be partly attributed to the shut down of horse slaughter facilities and the economic downturn (many horse owners struggle financially to take care of their horses). Therefore, horse rescue organizations, such asBethany’s Gait, are serving a huge need.

Dona also adds that because the horses have often been through hardship, they are more attuned to the client’s needs. Furthermore, according to Dona, “Because the horses have experienced traumatic experiences, when clients are caring for their horse, they are caring for themselves; when they are helping the horses heal, they are internalizing that.”

MSgt Runyon “knew” that he had to choose the horse named Dynamite the moment he saw Dynamite’s name on the wooden sign dangling above his corral. “There is almost a sixth sense that clients have. And sometimes they say the horse chose me,” Dona says. MSgt Runyon also picked a horse named Little Tucker after feeling a connection with him. Once the horse is chosen, the client and the horse begin to develop a relationship; this involves grooming, gentle talking, and other exercises that help the two get to know each other. According to Silverberg-Rose, horses provide the opportunity for clients to build a healthy relationship, which for many clients is a foreign concept. It is a relationship built on trust and respect, which the client must earn from the horse and vice versa. 

Horses are unique animals and have many characteristics that are essential to their capability to enable healing and growth within clients. For example, horses are prey animals and are very sensitive to “danger” signs such as fast movements, forceful methods, and being cornered. The client must earn the trust of a horse and be able to read the horse’s subtle body language. Horses respond well to positive behaviors and emotions. Thus, fear, anger and hatred will not elicit a favorable response from them, creating opportunities for clients to learn new behaviors.

Furthermore, because of the horses’ sensitivity to environmental cues and their ability to sense a client’s internal state – regardless of the external facade – their responses provides the clients insights about themselves. “Dynamite gave me the feeling that I could connect with a living thing that was intuitive … that I could express to and then it would express back to me,” MSgt Runyon says. He was amazed at how much the horses read into his mind and helped him release things he didn’t even know he had.

Horses also have a calming presence. They listen, can connect with clients, and similar to all other animals, they do not judge. Many clients who do not feel safe expressing their issues to other human beings, feel much more comfortable talking to a horse. “It’s similar to a sounding board. It’s the way to talk yourself out of memories, guilt, problems, or anything else you might be carrying,” says MSgt Runyon, “It’s hard to describe. The horse shows empathy; you have to do it to understand it.”

Another reason clients become more attuned to their inner reality in their sessions with horses is because the majority of their communication is nonverbal; similar to meditation in nature, clients have the silence needed to become aware of their internal dialogue. Other benefits of equine therapy include being outdoors and not in the confinement of an office. This opportunity provides hands-on learning and greater client responsiveness; spontaneous and natural changes can occur.

Furthermore, interacting with a 1200-pound animal requires awareness which makes the client grounded in the here and now. This is an important aspect of helping clients who have PTSD. “With PTSD, you are swept up in thoughts,” says Dona, “Horses help the client stay present in the moment.” In addition, when clients get such a huge animal to respect them and respond to them, their confidence will also grow. Earning the respect of a horse is also part of an activity calledTakingTerritorywhere the client is taught how to earn the respect of the horse and become a leader. Craig Kiggens, a Bethany’s Gait’s volunteer and Board Member who has worked with many military clients, states that many times people struggle with either being too aggressive or too passive: “If you are over the top with the horse, they ‘respect’ you; they move away, but they don’t come back in, because they don’t trust you. They don’t want to engage with you anymore.” A client must learn to find the middle ground between passiveness and aggressiveness in order to become the leader. Horses communicate their respect through different ways such as by eye contact, by dropping their head down, and letting out a sigh.

Clients are also given the opportunity to observe a group of horses in an exercise called Herd Observation. In an arena, clients watch a group of horses to see how they behave toward each other and observe which one establishes itself as the leader. Horses depend on a leader for survival and will continually test the leader to be sure they are worthy. Herd observation is an important activity according to Dona: “The clients get to see the herd dynamics. It’s similar to how the dynamics in a military unit function. There is a hierarchy that includes a ‘commanding officer’ of sorts and ranks all the way down to the bottom.”  At Bethany’s Gait, Lil’ Miss Tahoe –  a palomino mare who came to the program four years ago after being evacuated from a fire –  is the one who always takes on the leadership role. According to Dona, Tahoe shows clients what a good leader is, but all horses serve a purpose. “After the observation, many clients may have insights,” she says, “A certain horse may remind them of how someone close to them behaves toward another or how they themselves behave.”

Trail riding has its place in therapy as well. “It’s a partnership with a horse,” says Dona, “It’s about building relationships. Horses are very good about teaching what a healthy relationship looks like.”

MSgt Runyon would leave the ranch after his sessions feeling better than when he arrived, and it didn’t take long for him to see results. “I have learned through the horses how to face … things, learned how to know those triggers, avoid or disengage, so I don’t go into that place of fear, wanting to hide,” MSgt Runyon says, “It helped me have a high quality life again.”

MSgt Runyon also attributes a big part of his benefit from equine therapy to time spent talking with Dona. During therapy, Dona is always carefully watchful of any issues that come up for MSgt Runyon, and will talk to him about it; “ It’s experiential,” she says, “You work with what comes in the moment.”

MSgt Runyon found his two horses to be an unbelievable combination. While Dynamite helped him release negative memories, Little Tucker gave him “freedom” with his fun loving side. The relationship wasn’t meant to last forever as Dynamite passed away; however, a new relationship soon began with Pandora – a bay mare who wrapped herself around Runyon as he heard the news of Dynamite’s passing. MSgt Runyon says Pandora wanted to comfort him.

It’s been more than a year-and-a-half since MSgt Runyon first came toBethany’s Gait, and he is truly grateful for the opportunity.  “I have come to a realization that I can live and exist in the here and now”. At 54,  he finally feels like a normal human being once again. He has let those memories be memories, and sees hope for the future. Today MSgt Runyon is an ardent advocate forBethany’s Gait and has a message: “All the veterans who are looking for a way to deal with those memories, this is one way. To all those who aren’t affected, if you could help in any way, it would be amazing.” “Amazing” would be the word used by many who are familiar with the organization. The seed forBethany’s Gait was sown in the early 1990s when Silverberg-Rose was volunteering at a youth ranch. There she met a 5-year-old girl namedBethanywho had experienced a great deal of pain in her short life. Silverberg-Rose witnessed Bethany coming out of her shell of pain when she was around the horses and saw her gradually transform and heal. Silverberg-Rose was inspired to one day establish a ranch that would be committed exclusively to healing for children like Bethany.  Once the ranch was established, that vision grew to helping struggling adults as well.

A few years after its founding, Bethany’s Gait started programs specifically for the military, including Equine PT – a day long retreat designed to provide leadership training and the opportunity for attendees to become stronger in mind, body and spirit; in addition, the organization also provides therapy and other programs for children of military personnel. Recently Bethany’s Gait expanded to Prescott, Arizona to start a program focused specifically on Veterans. It is important to note that Arizona has one of the highest veteran populations in the U.S: at about 10% of its overall population. The programs not only affect the clients, but also their families and friends. The change in clients transforms their relationships as well.

Bethany’s Gait functions mainly through private donations and grants. Providing care for more than a dozen horses along with two facilities and personnel to serve more than 100 clients each month is costly and sometimes challenging.The organization offers most of its services to military clients free of charge and is in need of people to partner with them by sponsoring an individual, a military unit or a rescue horse. One-time donations are also appreciated. MSgt Runyon has a sponsor; another Veteran who felt fortunate that he had not experienced the traumatic things MSgt Runyon had experienced, wanted to support him. Today MSgt Runyon admits had he not been part of the program, he would still be haunted and struggling.

Bethany’s Gait is a blessing for active duty, reserve and veteran military personnel and their families; for the rescued horses who suffered abuse, neglect or were abandoned; and even for the magnanimous volunteers, such as Kiggens who says, “Sometimes it makes your day to just see a smile on someone’s face.”

Working together to get DeeDee through the obstacle course they created.

Allie contemplating the pole which was the centerpiece of the obstacle course.

A Marine shares a quiet moment with Tahoe.

  The Marines identified the pole as their greatest obstacle; rather than taking it head on, Allie’s solution was to go around it.  As with true obstacles in life, avoidance is never the solution.  Through teamwork and ingenuity, the Marines finally got her to go over it!


About the Author:

Bahar Sharareh is a broadcast journalist in Orange County, California. She is finishing up her masters degree in Communication at California State University, Fullerton, and wants to become a news anchor. She also loves writing about anything that inspires her and wants to sincerely make a difference!

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